Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:04 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:04 | SYDNEY

The decline and fall of GEN McChrystal


Raoul Heinrichs

28 June 2010 11:20

Before his public downfall, General Stanley McChrystal had a reputation for being a consummate professional. In Iraq, he became known as a savvy operator, a thinking-man's general with an every-man personality. Respected in Washington and venerated by his subordinates in the field, McChrystal was, in short, someone with a lot to lose.

Which makes his decision to grant such privileged access to an unknown journalist all the more mysterious. Vanity clearly played some part. But even that doesn't account for how an apparently seasoned general could so swiftly, so completely, bring about his own professional demise.

Of course, the whole affair might have resulted from a series of unforced errors. In the midst of war, perhaps stage managing the general just didn't rank as a priority. There's some suggestion that the reporter might have violated the terms of an off-the-record discussion or that 'Team America' should have been given the opportunity, after the fact, to contextualise the offending material (other reports claim McChrystal's staff did vet the final draft).

Or could it be, as some suspect, that McChrystal, whether consciously or not, pulled the pin on a hand-grenade and held on for grim death, trapped as he was between Washington's expectations and the intractability of the Afghanistan war?

When he took command of Afghanistan, McChrystal inherited a war which, as I noted at the time, the US had already lost. Terror central had long ago been resurrected in Pakistan, meaning that Washington had failed — irrevocably, given Pakistan's obstructions — to attain its fundamental strategic objectives. Meanwhile, other regional players had begun jockeying for position with greater intensity than ever, determined to prevent others from translating a foothold in Afghanistan into any geopolitical advantage.

It was onto this situation that McChrystal sought to graft his counterinsurgency. With Obama's eventual blessing, the US would begin not to extricate itself but instead to double down. Where the Taliban could win just by surviving, by hanging on, the US would saddle itself with perpetual nation-building and all the exertion that entails.

'Protecting the population' became the mantra and it meant getting out of the humvees, exposing the troops to greater danger, and interfering more, not less, in the lives of ordinary Afghans – in the vain hope that all of this would somehow defeat the insurgency. Such an approach required more troops, more time, more money and, worst of all, more precious lives lost.

McChrystal might have been sacked for a handful of caustic remarks (most of which, it should be said, seem pretty spot-on). Yet by far his greatest failing is that he, like Obama, is simply a woeful strategist. In the most revealing passages of the now infamous Rolling Stone piece, McChrystal's Chief of Operations, General Bill Mayville, notes that, whatever happens in Afghanistan, 'It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This is going to end in an argument.'

As the futility of Afghanistan becomes fully apparent to the Administration and the military, and as the reality dawns that there may be no face-saving way out, someone is going to have to take responsibility for losing, and prolonging, the war. With McChrystal having been put to the sword, that argument is just beginning.

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia, used under a Creative Commons license.